Sunday, March 21, 2010
Ajanta lies at a distance of 100 kilometers from Aurangabad in the heart of the Deccan plateau- the oldest land mass in the India subcontinent. The spot is secluded and the marvelous caves have been excavated on a perpendicular rock face rising up from the curving Waghora river, hidden from public view by a thick jungle.
A vast majority of the 1,200 odd rock-cut temples in India are located in the western part of peninsular India. This concentration of temples is explained both by the ancient trade routes as well as by the availability of basaltic trap rock suitable for craving. Interestingly, rock architecture began not in western India but in the eastern region. Emperor Ashok (270-230 BC), the greatest of the Mauryas, was the first to commission their excavation. The earliest caves were scooped out in the Barabar hills near Gaya and gifted to Ajivika and Jaina saints. The activity was taken up in western India around the second century BC. The first phase continued up to the second century AD and represents the exertions of the patrons of Hinayana (the early school of Buddhism which charted the lesser career to salvation). Buddha, the great master, is represented during this period with a symbol- a stupa (literally, burial mound), an umbrella, an empty throne , the Bodhi tree or the sandals.
From the second to the sixth century AD, adherents of Mahayana (the later school of Buddhism, also called the Greater Vechicle) patronized this work. The Buddha could now be shown in a human form and it is this period that Ajanta celebrates so gloriously. The Hindus took to building cave temples in the early sixth century AD at Jogeshwari near Bombay, and at the port city of Elephanta, later shifting to Ellora. The Jainas followed in their wake in the ninth century AD. After flourishing for over a thousand years, this art form lost its popularity, perhaps with the advent of structural temples.
Although the caves at Ajanta were dug out over a period of six centuries, most of those representing the Mahayana phase-those decorated more lavishly and with a profusion of human figures-were excavated between circa 465 AD and 500 AD. In fact, most of this was accomplished during the reign of a single Vakataka king, Harishena (AD 460-478). He is the one referred to as the ‘moon among princes’ in the inscription found in cave 17 at Ajanta. The Vakatakas were a Brahmin dynasty whose main branch had established a matrimonial alliance with the imperial Guptas (4th- 6th century AD). Ajanta, however, is the achievement of the Bassim branch which had begun to outshine the main line by the fifth century AD. Although the king himself was not a Buddhist, many of his ministers and rich merchants were followers of Buddhism.
He himself seems to have been more than merely tolerant, in fact much inclined and sympathetic to the new faith which had by now ceased to be severely ascetic. Another inscription at Ajanta refers to the cave residences of the monks ‘affording enjoyment of well known comforts in all seasons’.